One of the really interesting questions New Testament scholars are working these days is how quotations of the Old Testament work. When a New Testament writer quotes the Old Testament—as Matthew does Isaiah in today’s readings—is the writer concerned only with the words cited, or is the writer using those words to point to the larger unit in which the words are embedded? In today’s readings I think it’s more likely the latter. Let’s start with Isaiah.
Last month (the last Sunday of Advent) we heard part of Isaiah’s conversation with the Judean king Ahaz. Ahaz’s neighbors Israel and Syria were threatening invasion. Faced with Ahaz’s distrust, Isaiah delivered both good and bad news. The good news: Israel and Syria would soon be non-issues. The bad news: they’d be non-issues because a very hungry Assyrian Empire (modern Iraq) would be Judah’s new next-door neighbor.
Today’s Isaiah oracle reflects the situation just a few years later. A good chunk of Northern Israel (the traditional tribal territory of Zebulun and Naphtali) is now part of the Assyrian Empire. But that won’t be the last word: there will be deliverance like “the day of Midian;” a child has been born who will rule with justice and righteousness—forever. When? It all sounds pretty imminent—until the last verse: “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this,” which turns out to be also a warning that it’s on the Lord’s timetable, not ours.
“The day of Midian” looks like a reference to the story of Gideon in the Book of Judges. The Midianites from across the Jordan were oppressing Israel. The Lord tells Gideon to gather troops but then, surprisingly, says “The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me’” (Jdg. 7:2). Under the Lord’s instruction Gideon gets the troops down to 300, equips them with trumpets, torches, jars to hide the flames, no mention of swords, and at night has them surround the Midianite camp, break the jars and sound the trumpets in unison. The Midianites panic and flee. So “the day of Midian” in Isaiah’s oracle suggests that this victory over the oppressor may not depend on the sword.
William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So for Matthew, steeped in the Old Testament stories, the connection between Isaiah’s words regarding Zebulun and Naphtali and Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee is natural. But it’s not just about geography. Now the oppressor is not the Midianites or the Assyrians, but the Romans. Matthew’s opening genealogy identified Jesus as the son of David, the Messiah. What’s the Messiah doing about the Romans? So I suspect Matthew really liked that “day of Midian” in the Isiah oracle to which he pointed back. Jesus, like Gideon, isn’t taking the expected route. It looks like he’s just calling some fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James, John—but something like—something greater than—“the day of Midian” is afoot.
Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness.” And Matthew records: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Light, certainly! And Matthew continues poking at our notions of what justice and righteousness are about.
In short, Matthew has cited a bit of Isaiah’s oracle to invite us to use the whole oracle to make sense of Jesus the Messiah’s very low-key beginning moves.
That would be a good place to end the sermon—except that we’ve got this classic banana peel scene in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Immediately after the cheerful greeting we heard last week, it turns out that the Corinthians, rather than continuing to learn from the Messiah (the Christ) what justice and righteousness are about, have slipped into taking up the sword, so to speak, and divided into competing factions: “I’m with Paul/Apollos/Cephas/Christ.”
Completely understandable, of course. One didn’t survive in Corinth without vigorous self-esteem, and it was only natural to take the church as simply another arena in which to guard and seek status. Like the disciples: arguing on that final trip up to Jerusalem about who was the greatest.
Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk who introduced many of us to Centering Prayer, used to tell this story about himself. As a young man he was proud of being able to hold his liquor, to drink everyone else under the table. He later joined the Trappists, one of the stricter monastic orders. They took Lent seriously, to the point that as they progressed through Lent it was common for members to seek dispensations from the Abbot from the rigorous diet. Not Thomas. By the end of Lent he’d fasted everyone else under the table. The Abbot observed, but said nothing. When Lent came around the next year, the Abbot gave Thomas an additional discipline: a whole Hershey bar and a glass of whole milk every day. So as the other monks were tightening their belts…
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us,” not so we can continue, metaphorically speaking, with the rod and sword, but so that we can learn from this Son new ways of living. Judging by the experience of the disciples and Corinthians, this is not a quick process. Judging by the experience of the disciples and Corinthians, our Lord is astonishingly patient. Or, as Isaiah put it, “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”